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State of Denial

Bob Woodward

Bush at War, Part III

(Simon and Schuster)

What's Bad is Good for You

“If we have a military strategy, I can’t identify it. I don’t know what’s worse—that they have one and won’t tell us or that they don’t have one.”
—Deputy national security adviser Robert D. Blackwill, quoted in Bob Woodward’s State of Denial


It would be easy to say that it’s somewhat beside the point to even read Bob Woodward’s State of Denial now, after the breathless news summations of all the book’s dirty details, not to mention Woodward’s victory lap on just about every news program under the sun. What’s left to say, after all? Bush bungled the war in Iraq, he doesn’t listen to bad news, the administration’s top staff has a serious case of the Emperor’s New Clothes—fair enough, now on to the next book on Republican calamity.


There’s something to be said for this point of view, after all, there are only so many hours in the day, and with about 100,000 new books being published each year, why delve into a piece of nonfiction that simply fleshes out a number of points already well hashed-over in that mainstream liberal media so loathed by the right? (Note to vast liberal conspiracy: Job well done!) The reason is simple: you may think you know, but you don’t. Saying one doesn’t need to find out about the why and how of the quagmire of Iraq is like saying that simply hearing that six million Jews died in the Holocaust is all one needs to learn about that subject. It’s simply bigger than that.


What Woodward thinks everyone needs to know is not just that something is rotten in the executive branch, but who made it come about. And although State of Denial is subtitled “Bush at War, Part III,” and the media attention has been focused almost exclusively on Bush’s appearances in the book, the primary actor here is in fact Donald Rumsfeld. A former secretary of defense from the 1970s who had been a Republican Congressman and Fortune 500 as well, Rumsfeld came into the Pentagon with big ideas about what to change. Already nurturing a grudge against the slothful military bureaucracy, and possessing an executive’s passion for sweeping change, he arrived obsessed with a vision of a new and leaner military; unfortunately that desire for change was about the only thing he could commit to doing.


Woodward relates in painful detail the early days of Rumsfeld’s reign, as he showers the Pentagon with uncounted daily memos (called “snowflakes”), each addressing some minute issue that supposedly needed immediate attention. A micromanager’s micromanager, he once lacerated the White House for allowing Bush to make a speech from a factory which built M-1 tanks, since those armored vehicles were exactly the kind of heavy 20th century weaponry he was trying to move the military away from. Of course, what State of Denial makes clear is that Rumsfeld had little in mind with which to replace the “old” military. Focused far more on chains of command and pet management theories (MBA candidates should read this book just to see how not to run an organization) than the grotty work of actually winning a war, Rumsfeld spent an astounding amount of time in his first four years not on Iraq but on a report: the far-reaching Quadrennial Defense Review—plotting out the U.S. military’s next 20 years. When Rumsfeld finally presented it to the civilian Defense Policy Review Board, he proudly announced, to the stunned silence of disbelief, that not a single program had been cut. Every one of those expensive old Cold War-era weapons systems and unnecessary military bases, they all stayed right where they were, feeding the ever-ravenous military-industrial complex.


Meanwhile, almost unnoticed, the ground war in Iraq ground on, far from the attention of a secretary of defense who preferred to fiddle with troop levels, actively block attempts to train Iraqi troops and police (Rumsfeld was pathologically terrified of getting involved in a Bosnia-type nation-building exercise, even as Bush made statements to the contrary) and verbally lacerate subordinates or sometimes even equals who let anything get through to the president without going through him first. Rumsfeld comes off as eggheaded and arrogant in the McNamara mold, but without the intellectual capacity for self-analysis; he won’t be doing a Fog of War-style mea culpa years from now on what he did wrong about Iraq. He will go to his grave making sarcastic comments and refusing responsibility.


One of the many questions Rumsfeld’s infuriatingly clueless behavior raises is: if he didn’t care about Iraq, and he was one of the few men whom Cheney and Bush listened to with almost complete trust, then why did the war happen in the first place? Bush’s lack of attention to the details of not just waging war but creating an entirely new democracy from scratch (the all-important planning for which only starts mere weeks before the invasion, and then in the most ad-hoc fashion) hardly indicates an overwhelming desire for the war, and it’s clear from the beginning that only a small number of his advisers think it’s a good idea. What comes through in the muddle of day-to-day politicking related in State of Denial—Woodward’s clunky A-B-C prose won’t win points on style but it perhaps inadvertently deftly mirrors the turtle’s pace of governing—is that there very well may have been no single clear reason for the war, just a patchwork of secondary considerations without any great animating impulse, much like the conduct of the actual war itself.


Although Bush orders invasion planning to start in November of 2001, it isn’t long after the fall of Baghdad that his attention wanders; there’s that second election, after all, can’t let anything detract from that. Embarrassingly impatient and eager to get on with things, he’s the last man anybody would want to bring bad news to, and time after time, Woodward tells how generals and advisers come to him overflowing with complaints and dire portents, only to fold before the president’s benign visage and not utter a word of it. Not enough translators, not enough troops, too many insurgent attacks, no clear chain of command; all of it can’t even fall on deaf ears because the ears which need to hear it, can’t. And the war grinds on.


State of Denial is not a great book about what went wrong in Iraq, though Woodward does spend time following around occupation leaders like Jay Garner and Paul Bremer. Larry Diamond Squandered Victory and George Packer’s The Assassin’s Gate are much better on-the-ground accounts of that whole sad and sordid catastrophe. What Woodward does, quite excellently, is track the fog of in-fighting and blatant careerism inside Washington which then translated into a critical lack of focus on the war itself. It’s not a polemic, as even though Rumsfeld gets the brunt of the blame here, Woodward, ever the clever one, almost never sticks the knife in himself through editorializing, he lets his sources do that for him; the killer lines are never the author’s.


It wouldn’t be hard to argue that Woodward is an opportunist. His previous two books on Bush, Bush at War and Plan of Attack, penned when he was riding higher, were hardly hatchet jobs, and were even hailed by the notoriously thin-skinned White House as singularly fair-minded. Now, with his approval ratings scuttling in the basement and a potentially disastrous mid-term election coming up, Woodward issues a book on the same man that would be hard to read as anything but denunciatory. Did he miss something the first two times around? Did the fact that this time the president wouldn’t agree to interviews keep Woodward from being blinded by Bush’s backslapping politico hokum? It’s impossible to tell, but even if one concedes that Woodward is simply riding the waves of popular disapproval, the portrait painted in State of Denial is undeniably damning.


The possibility of political motives behind Woodward’s book seem hardly relevant when one watches an effortless military victory and the promise of democracy dissolve into insurgent butchery and nihilism, not because the occupiers were defeated, but because their indecisive leaders—a succession of weak-willed generals more terrified of upsetting the boss than of losing the war—had them working at cross-purposes. One comes away from State of Denial thinking instead not about why Woodward turned on Bush, but instead about the surreal contradiction of an administration willing to put itself, and the country, on the line for a war it doesn’t seem to want to bother following through with. Whose war was this, anyway?

Chris Barsanti is an habitual scrivener on books and film for the lucky readers of PopMatters, Film Journal International, Film Racket, and Publishers Weekly, and has also been published in The Chicago Tribune, The Millions, The Barnes and Noble Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and New York Film Critics Online. His books include Filmology: A Movie-a-Day Guide to the Movies You Need to Know, the Eyes Wide Open annual film guide series, and The Sci-Fi Movie Guide: The Universe of Film from 'Alien' to 'Zardoz'. His writings can be found here.


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